Our first stop in Bulgaria was Veliko Tărnovo (Bulgarian: Велѝко Търново), the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire and today is home to one of their biggest universities. Based upon my research it was a must-see and also a convenient stop on the train from Bucharest into Bulgaria. As a result, we were in this lovely northern Bulgarian city from Friday 14 July – Sunday 16 July. This gave us one full day to see the city; which was adequate given its size. This city was also our first introduction to the Bulgarian language and the cyrillic alphabet, which is used for Slavic languages. We’re now in the Balkans! This has made things a little more complicated for navigation but we’re managing 🙂
Transportation: We took the train from Bucharest to the nearby town of Gorna Oryahovitsa (Bulgarian: Горна Оряховица – good luck pronouncing that!) then took a public bus to Veliko Tărnovo. The train took 6 hours, with 1.5 hours stopped at the border control in Romania (where they took our passports for about an hour while we sat on the train) and again for about 45 minutes at border control in Bulgaria. The bus was 20 minutes into the city. Overall, a bus from Romania to Bulgaria might have been faster but the train was easy and comfortable as the train wasn’t crowded, we had plenty of room and we had time to catch up on blogging and personal stuff online.
Accommodation: We stayed at the Hikers’ Hostel in a private room and shared bathroom. How did we like it? I’ll start with the positives: the hostel was located within walking distance of the old town and a bus stop and it had an excellent view of the fortress across the river from both our room and the common area. Unfortunately, that’s where the good points end. The bathroom was disgusting and unclean, the staff who ran the place were a few high school students that always had friends over to hang out, drink beer, party, and play with bow and arrows on the terrace (yes, they had a bow and arrow) and were pretty much useless with any advice. It had good ratings online so we unsure if this is what it is normally like or if things have gone downhill recently. We didn’t change locations since it would have been more trouble, but were SO glad to not be staying there any longer!
Eats: Our introduction to Bulgarian cuisine has had a very good beginning. I had no idea that Bulgaria produces tons of wines, which have turned out to be pretty good! And cheap (for us with CHF and USD). Also, the menus have had tons of variety and apparently they love salads – each menu has a big selection of fresh salads. Here’s some dishes we tried…
We had lunch on Saturday at the Gurko Hotel and Tavern after our walking tour, which was recommended by our tour guide. The restaurant was a mehana, which is a traditional Bulgarian tavern that is decorated in a rustic style, adorned with rugs and farming implements, and offering primarily authentic Bulgarian cuisine. They had a nice view of the city as well.
Our lunch at the Gurko Tavern. Top left: Andrew at our table; Top right: My salad and bread, which was kind of like naan or pita; Bottom left: Andrew’s salad, which had yogurt and local cheese on it; Bottom right: Andrew’s Kavarma stew. This is a traditional Bulgarian stew of chicken, pork & carrots in a tomato broth. All of it was so good!
Saturday happened to be my 30th birthday. To celebrate, we went to a restaurant of my choosing, Shtastliveca (Bulgarian: Ресторант Щастливеца, translated as Restaurant Lucky) in the Old City. I had told them it was my birthday, and they gave us one of the best tables on the terrace overlooking the city with rose petals scattered on the table and meringues at each seat. The perfect evening for my 30th birthday!
Activities: We had just one day to tour the city which was the perfect amount of time given the relatively small size. In the morning we did a fantastic free walking tour (donations accepted) with a local high school student. She amazed us with her knowledge and we had a great time going through the Old City with her and a small group of travelers.
Our visit to Veliko Tărnovo has made it clear that we are not in a top tourist destination for international travelers. We saw our tour and just one other tour on Saturday and the tourist information center was quiet. We did, however, meet people from all over the world on our walking tour (Germans, a Taiwanese, an Argentinian, a Colombian and a Polish girl) which showed that the country is capturing interest.
After lunch on Saturday afternoon we walked over to the Monument of the Asen Dynasty of the second Bulgarian Kingdom (AD 1185-1396). It had a fantastic view of the city.
For a last stop we walked to the Tsarevets fortress. There was no guide, but we had a little help through descriptions from our tour book. Apparently the communist government had reconstructed many of the buildings, so the walls you see here are not 100% original. Additionally, historians criticize how the government rebuilt the fortress as they are not confident they held to the original style. Either way, it does help to see the structure a bit and imagine what it might have looked like.
Before dinner we went to the grocery store to grab snacks for the next day’s breakfast given our early planned departure. It’s always an adventure to go through local grocery store to see what the locals buy. Here we saw a cheese case packed with many different variations of the two Bulgarian cheeses (Kashkaval and Sirene), many types of sausages and in the dried foods aisles so many kinds of beans! An interesting view of the local cuisine and palette.
First impressions of Bulgaria
Bulgaria has been a true pleasure so far. Upon arrival it was a little rocky as we arrived in a ghost town of a train station and no bus schedule or map in sight. We googled a bunch and could not find any more information. Welcome to Bulgaria! Luckily our hostel had told us to take the #10 bus, which came within 10 minutes of us standing there wondering if we should just suck it up and pay for a taxi, which would very likely rip us off as we were warned. We had no idea if we took the bus in the right direction as the bus conductor gave us a shrug when we asked her about the direction, but it turned out to take us right into the center of the city within a short walk of our hostel! Success!
We encountered a neat cultural difference (for the first time of many) at dinner the first night. Bulgarians are a culture that have different head nods for “yes” and “no.” It’s opposite from ours! We remembered this because we asked for our bill at the restaurant and the server shook her head to me with what appeared to be a “no” from side to side. I was SO confused why she would do that and why she would NOT bring us our bill, until we both remembered that she was actually acknowledging me that yes, she would come back with it. And sure enough, she did.
Similar to Romania, the people have been kind and helpful. While we were not so happy with our hostel, the young tour guide impressed us and the city charmed us with its romantic red tile roofed houses covering the hill toward the river that carved a “U” through the center. It was a small city but a great introduction and beginning to our tour of Bulgaria. Next up: The lovely Black Sea-side town of Созопол…OK I guess you aren’t fluent in Bulgarian just yet. See you in Sozopol!